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Recall the Government Meat Inspectors

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The record recall of hamburger meat from the Hudson Foods plant in Nebraska last year should prompt us to ask whether the government should be certifying the safety of America’s food supply. Let’s face it, food is too important to be left to government.

For many people, that may come as a shock. Doesn’t the E. coli-contaminated beef show that we badly need government inspection? It seems we do not. The federal government has been inspecting meat for decades, and yet this contamination occurred just the same. There was a worse outbreak in 1993, the “Jack in the Box” case in which four children died. The government points to fewer and milder illnesses in the Hudson case to show that it is getting better at keeping food clean.

I would suggest that there is another way to interpret what is going on. Contrary to the claims of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, government inspection doesn’t make you safer. It makes you more vulnerable.

It does so by removing food safety from your list of daily concerns. Some people would say it is good that we don’t have to think about food safety. That is supposed to be the great benefit of having government take charge of the matter. But since, as we’ve just been reminded, government can never guarantee that food is untainted, are we really better off for thinking we need not be concerned? Maybe if people had not been under the illusion that the government was certifying the safety of ground beef, nearly 20 folks in Colorado would not have gotten sick.

When government assures people that it is looking after something, it invariably lulls them into believing that they need not look after it themselves. Everyone sees the USDA seal on meat packages. That seal says, in effect, “Not to worry. Your government is taking care of you.” So people don’t worry. They trust the government. That is trust misplaced.

The upshot is that if government presumes to keep our food safe, we will be less vigilant and therefore less safe.

Does this mean there should be no inspection of meat plants? No. Only that there should be no government inspection. Ultimately, competition is the best protector of consumers. The perverse result of government inspection is that it removes safety as a factor of competition among firms. If all companies are subject to the same government safety certification, they will not regard it as worthwhile to compete on the basis of safety. Minimum standards will tend to become maximums. Compliance with government standards will be a defense against lawsuits. In general, the government monopoly on certification neutralizes safety as a competitive issue. That’s bad. (The exception proves the rule: Hebrew National, which makes kosher meat, uniquely brags that in the matter of ingredients it answers to a “higher authority.”)

Imagine a food industry unregulated by government. Companies seeking to make profits would go to great lengths to assure their customers that their products are safe. Their advertisements would address the issue. They would brag that their procedures are better than their competitors’. Safety would become part of the market’s rivalrous process. Retailers would also have (as they do now) a stake in keeping their customers safe.

Why? Because business people, wholesale and retail, tend to have a personal interest in being in business for a long time. Being suspected of selling adulterated food is fatal to a company. Look at the aftermath of the Hudson case. The company has been sold to Tyson Foods. The plant has also been sold to someone else. The name Hudson will forever be linked to E. coli, although Hudson was not even the source of the contamination!

Retailers’ interest in protecting their customers from unsafe products is under-appreciated. Observe Burger King’s reaction. Before the contamination was discovered, Burger King used Hudson hamburger patties to make Big Whoppers and other sandwiches. Its flame-broiling process kills E. coli, and it is impossible for hamburgers to be removed from the broiler before they are fully cooked. Yet Burger King returned all of its Hudson hamburger and announced that it would no longer use the company as a supplier. Overreaction? Or concern about its good name? Whichever it is, the retail industry is part of the market’s consumer-protection process.

In a free market the wholesale and retail levels would offer rationally redundant layers of consumer protection. But that’s not all. Without government regulation we would see the emergence of a competitive private-inspection industry. Inspection companies would build reputations on records of competence and honesty. Food companies would then make much of the fact that their plants were certified by the inspectors with the best reputations. Private inspectors, whose very existence would depend on reputation, would be less likely to become corrupt than the faceless inspection bureaucracies of the government.

This is not just theory. The safety certification of electrical appliances is performed not by government, but by Underwriters Laboratories, a private nonprofit organization. Before a product gets the coveted UL stamp, it must meet rigorous standards. After decades of service, Underwriters Laboratories has such a sterling reputation that anything carrying the seal engenders confidence. UL has been at it so long that safety is no longer a competitive factor. Virtually every electrical product carries the UL seal. But that is only because of the confidence UL has worked so hard to achieve. There is no shortcut to that situation.

If competition is a major source of consumer protection, another is technology. We shouldn’t be surprised to learn that there is a technological process available to kill bacteria in beef, but the government, specifically the Food and Drug Administration, won’t permit it to be used.

As author Richard Rhodes wrote in the New York Times, “It’s a good rule of thumb that technological solutions work better than increased regulation.” He pointed out that before 1920, contaminated milk killed thousands of babies each year in America’s cities. “The solution wasn’t more Federal dairy inspectors or a merger of Government agencies,” Rhodes wrote. “It was pasteurization.”

He went on to write that the problem of dangerous, even deadly, bacterial poisoning in meat and fruit has had a solution for about 40 years. “It is the equivalent of pasteurization,” he said, “and its neglect is a disgrace.”

It’s called irradiation. Gamma rays, which are like X-rays and microwaves, kill E. coli, salmonella, and other dangerous bacteria without endangering consumers and without changing the food’s flavor, appearance, or texture. The American Medical Association approves of irradiation.

The FDA has approved it for fruits, vegetables, pork, and poultry, but not for red meat, although permission was requested more than three years ago. (As this issue went to press, the FDA announced that it would finally permit beef to be irradiated.) Meanwhile, the environmental movement has campaigned against irradiation on grounds that the radioactivity is environmentally unsafe. That has spooked some consumers into shying away from food that is irradiated. “The unsupported fears of the Luddite opposition are making people suffer needlessly,” Rhodes wrote.

Considering that 33 million people in the United States get sick each year from food contamination and 9,000 die, it seems a little absurd for the FDA to be withholding an important key to safety. But there is a built-in bureaucratic reason for the FDA to be overcautious. If it approves a product or process that harms someone (and that can always happen; nothing is 100 percent safe), it will be the butt of headlines and congressional hearings. But the deaths that result because the FDA does not approve a product tend not to be attributed to the agency’s inaction. So it errs on the side of disapproval or tardiness. Meanwhile, people die or get sick or injured.

A far better alternative is to abolish the FDA and let the market for consumer safety blossom. Market organizations will provide ample information to anyone who seeks it. Whom would you sooner trust, the government or Consumer Reports? In a free market, products with a wide range of reliability and safety would be available, and consumers would be free to choose the level they are comfortable with.

Competition and the technology it spawns are the consumer’s best friends. Taking safety out of the competitive realm, therefore, is not in our interest. When government says it is taking care of us, it lulls us into a false sense of security. But a false sense of security is worse than no sense of security at all.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.